A client walks into a nail salon with chipped, broken nails and leaves with sparkly, polished fingertips. With various designs to choose from, the nail technician buffs and polishes the acrylic into various shapes — squares, ovals, stilettos, almonds and 'coffins'. But constantly breathing in the chemicals that she works with, each gorgeous manicure done by the cosmetologist could just be another set of nails being driven into her own coffin.
Consultant dermatologist Dr Neil Persadsingh explained that acrylic nails pose a hazard to the health of the person wearing them, and an even greater risk to those who constantly inhale them, such as nail salon workers. He identified the two main toxic chemicals in acrylic that are inhaled by nail technicians and their customers.
“There is a chemical in acrylic called MMA (Methyl Methacrylate), which causes damage to the liver and the lungs,” he said. “There is also Dibutyl Phthalate (DBP), which has been associated with birth defects.”
Prenatal exposure to DBP is associated with decreased anogenital distance in male infants, and reductions in masculine play behaviour among boys, according to research. It is also associated with decreased mental and physical development, increased internalising behaviours, and delayed pubarche in girls.
Dr Persadsingh said constant exposure to acrylic may cause irritation of the eyes, nose and throat, and respiratory problems. He said he has had several people who work with chemicals in the cosmetic industry come to him with various issues, and he advised them, quite frankly, to stop working with the chemicals.
“It makes no sense to be making someone else pretty and it's killing you off,” he argued.
He also cited the effects that may be encountered by those who wear acrylic nails.
“The acrylic tends to dry out the nail, and could lead to serious nail breakage when friction is applied to the nail, as the bond between the acrylic nail and your nail is stronger than the bond between your nail and the nail bed,” he noted.
“Some people also get allergic reactions to the chemicals in the acrylic; some people might even lose sensation in the fingers, which may be permanent.”
He said thinning of the nail bed may occur, and the healing time could be more than a year. The added layer of acrylic also creates room for harmful bacteria and fungi to grow, which can cause painful infections.
“Some hospitals in the States don't allow nurses wearing acrylic nails to see patients, as it is suspected that some deaths of premature babies, who don't yet have the capacity to defend themselves, were caused by infections that they contracted from the nurses wearing artificial nails,” Dr Persadsingh said.
Indeed, an Associated Press report out of Oklahoma City in 2000 showed results of a study which found that bacteria found under the long fingernails of two nurses may have contributed to the deaths of 16 sickly babies in 1997 and 1998 in an Oklahoma City hospital.
All of the babies were newborns in the neonatal intensive care unit (ICU), and all had infections caused by the same bacteria found under the nurses' nails. The study found evidence of an association between the bacteria that killed the infants and exposure to two nurses with long or artificial fingernails. The hospital has changed its policy to require short fingernails on nurses, and no babies in the neonatal ICU have died from the bacterial infection since then. The US Centers for Disease Control also suggested improved handwashing and requiring nurses to have short, natural fingernails, which are considered less likely to harbour germs.
In another study by the California Environmental Protection Agency's Department of Toxic Substances Control in 2012, it was revealed that nail products are known to contain toxic chemicals such as DBP, toluene, and formaldehyde, that are health and safety concerns. DBP and toluene are developmental toxins, and formaldehyde is a known carcinogen. These cause irritation to the eyes, nose, throat, skin, and mucus membranes, as well as adverse central nervous system effects, and other potentially adverse health effects
But despite the risks, however, Jamaican women continue to wear acrylic nails, and nail technicians put their health at risk to supply the demand, even though many are fully aware of the repercussions.
All Woman spoke with a few nail technicians to find out how their health has been affected, and what they do to protect themselves from the harmful vapours that they work with.
“I know that the chemicals can cause lung cancer,” divulged Shana-Kay, who operates from a shared salon in Clock Tower Plaza in Half-Way-Tree.
“So I drink milk once per week to flush my system. We also have a filter to draw the scent out of the shop. All of it doesn't come out, but the scent isn't so high.”
Shennel, who is based in Portmore, St Catherine, said she gets frequent headaches and feels lightheaded after working in the fumes for some time. She also disclosed that she had difficulty getting pregnant, and suspects that a miscarriage she had may be linked to her years of working in beauty salons that don't just do nails, but hair as well, which brings its own set of chemicals to the table.
“When I finally got pregnant it was when I started to lose hope,” she shared. “When I went to the doctor to check how far along I was, I was nine weeks, but I was still having bleeding.”
She eventually bore a slightly premature but healthy baby boy a year ago, and she still does nails to help to take care of him.
She confessed that she rarely wears masks when applying acrylic.
“I think it just traps the acrylic in the mask,” she said. “But I don't wear acrylic nails because I have a very soft nail bed and they thin out my nails. I mostly wear gel polishes.”
Natassia, who works in Longville Park, Clarendon, says she wears the mask to protect her from the dust when filing the acrylic nails. She wears artificial nails religiously, though, and said proper nail care can prevent most of the damage that is experienced by wearers.
“If your nails aren't prepped properly, it causes the natural nail to become easily torn or lifted. Also, if it is not removed properly, it can affect your natural nails,” she advised.